Kansas Picked Fourth on Big 12 Preseason Poll
|2015 Big 12 Preseason Poll|
|1. Texas (8)||64|
|2. Iowa State||53|
|3. Oklahoma (1)||49|
|5. Kansas State||41|
|8. Texas Tech||16|
|9. West Virginia||8|
LAWRENCE, Kan. – In each of the last three seasons, Kansas volleyball watched its success in the Big 12 Conference rise – highlighted by back-to-back second-place finishes in the league. Though the loss of two All-Big 12 seniors won’t go unnoticed, head coach Ray Bechard has his team on the verge of what could be an unprecedented season. His Jayhawks were voted fourth in the Big 12 Conference Preseason Coaches’ poll.
Released on Friday morning, the poll has Texas sitting at the top for the fifth-straight season with 64 points. This comes as no surprise considering UT advanced to the 2014 Final Four and has won eight Big 12 titles, including the last four-consecutive. Iowa State (53) and Oklahoma (49) were picked second and third, respectively, both of which tied Kansas (43) for second place in the league race.
“That’s a reflection of the players each of those teams have returning and a reflection of how deep our league is going to be,” Bechard said. “Preseason expectations and predictions are fine and good for people to look at, but last year when we finished second in the league – that’s what was most important. So we’ll see how things roll.”
Kansas State (41) was slated fifth, while much-improved Baylor (26) and TCU (24) squads were tallied in at sixth and seventh, respectively. Texas Tech (16) and West Virginia (8) round out the poll. Bechard expects an even more difficult trek through the conference this season as TCU, Baylor and West Virginia are all under the direction of new head coaches.
As for his squad, Bechard is excited for who’s coming back. Three starters and the libero return from a 2014 team that ended the year 22-9, giving KU three-straight 20-win seasons for the first time since 1980-81-82. Even with the depth returning – 12 letterwinners in all – he wasn’t surprised that the league coaches picked his team fourth despite finishing second each of the last two seasons. KU’s offensive production leaders from a year ago, Sara McClinton and Chelsea Albers, finished their careers as two-time All-Big 12 First Team and AVCA All-America Honorable Mention honorees. McClinton ranked sixth all-time at KU for career kills, while Albers was the most physical presence on the team.
True, the duo had much to do with the Jayhawks’ rise in the conference, but Bechard and his staff prepared for their departure. Evidenced by the seven-member freshman class that ranked in the top-15 last fall, now means seven returning sophomores with a lot of experience – specifically returning starting setter Ainise Havili. The AVCA All-America Honorable Mention honoree is back after leading the Big 12 in assists. Kelsie Payne ranked in the top-10 in blocks and attack percentage, while Kayla Cheadle posted the second-best attack percentage in the conference.
“I’ve told many people over the last couple of years that we lost seven kids a couple years ago, but the two we lost this last year combined probably on that stat sheet for as much as the seven,” Bechard said. “Chelsea and Sara were four-year starters and major, major impact players for us. But – to have Havili back after running the show as a freshman, and also Payne, Kayla Cheadle, Madison Rigdon, Claire Carpenter and Addie Barry, I think all those players had a ton of experience last fall. The opportunity we had to travel and play some matches on the European trip will be very advantageous to them, too.”
Underclassmen won’t be responsible for filling every vacancy. Plenty of veteran players will reprise their roles, as well. Leading the pack is senior Tiana Dockery, a dynamic outside hitter with the chance to become the first player in program history to play in four NCAA Tournaments.
Returning starters Tayler Soucie and Cassie Wait head up a deep junior class. Soucie led the Big 12 in blocks per set (1.40) last fall and earned All-Big 12 First Team honors. Wait started all 31 matches at libero and became one of three Jayhawks in history to post more than 500 digs in a season.
“Soucie is now an upperclassman, which sounds kind of weird, and so is Cassie Wait,” Bechard said. “Payne needs to continue to build on an outstanding freshman campaign just like Ainise. The biggest jump anybody made this spring was Madison Rigdon, so that was good to see. Everybody has got to make their push individually so our team can do it collectively.”